Russ Meyer: Powerful Persuader

Shortly before Thanksgiving 2005, Chartwells College and University Dining Services, a division of Compass Group, named University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) a Center of Excellence (COE). It was no small accolade for the staff and management, who set out to achieve COE status a little more than a year ago.

In fact, it's been a 13-year progression toward that goal, according to Russ Meyer, associate director of residential life, housing and food services for UNR, who spearheaded the quest since his arrival on campus as fsd in 1992.

To get to this point, Meyer has had to be the consummate diplomat and one powerful persuader to get university administrators and the contractor on the same page. But with the quiet patience of the fly fisherman he is, and the determination and daring of the kayaker still working on perfecting his Eskimo roll, it's all worth the effort.

Long-term outlook: "Chartwells has been here six years," Meyer says. "Being a Center of Excellence, or the equivalent, was part of our request for proposal in 1999 when we went looking for a partner. This institution had changed its contractor with every new contract. We wanted a partner in a situation where they could succeed long term. We wanted to be a 'showcase account,' figuring that would be a good benchmark. We said we wanted to be an account they'd show off to potential customers."

Meyer knows that being a showcase account includes having updated and appealing facilities, but when he arrived they were in bad shape. Over the ensuing 13 years, the department has redone every facility or built new. Now, even the small ones boast the technology to accept declining balance and credit cards.

"When the RFP went out in 1998-99, we told (potential bidders) that during the period of contract (it was for five years) we'd be a showcase account," Meyer recalls. "About two years into the contract, UNR did a dog-and-pony show for Chartwells, turning the tables on them since it's usually the contractor who's trying to impress the client. We spoke of our potential growth and we wanted to see how long they wanted to be here. We signed a 20-year contract at that time, with a substantial investment from them. We wanted to get out of the cycle (the five-year contract cycle) where no one does anything in the last year."

In-state effort:The growth Meyer refers to stems from the establishment by the state's governor five years ago of special scholarships for Nevada students to attend in-state institutions. UNR enrollment is now approximately 16,000, with 259 new bed spaces opened in 2001 and another 259 beds added in 2003. This increase in enrollment, reflected in Meyer's master plan conceived prior to releasing the RFP, included a new residence hall and residence dining facility. Shortly after the second 259-bed addition, a new dining facility including a c-store, was opened. Ten months later, the old residential dining facility was renovated into a foodcourt.

"What we've seen since we're into the long-term mode is a steady progression of improvement in products and services with management staff who know they can stay here long term,"Meyer points out. "If they're happy, contributing and progressing, they can stay here. But the No.1 thing was to get whoever we signed with to understand they were coming in to operate our foodservice, up to our standards, for our staff and students. It was a real paradigm shift for folks. They couldn't take a cookie-cutter approach but would have to adapt those concepts to what we need. What we get, we get to determine, and that took about a year."

Putting foodservice where the need will be hasn't always been the plan at UNR. In fact, when Meyer arrived a new building was nearing completion at the far end of the campus with no plan for including foodservice. Soon enough though, he created a "great little cash-op space" across the street that's now doing substantial business.

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